Guest Post: Eliza Redgold – Was Lady Godiva a Warrior?
This blog post comes to us from Eliza Redgold, author, academic and unashamed romantic. Her new novel Naked: A Novel of Lady Godiva was released by St Martin’s Press in 2015 and I'm half way through it at the moment and very much enjoying it. Lady Godiva was the grandmother of Edyth of Mercia, the heroine of my own novel The Chosen Queen so it's been great fun reading Eliza's take on her story.
Naked, a taster:
The morning dawned cold and bright. The scent of grass in the air, too soft a perfume for the day ahead. On the mud-trod plain outside Coventry our warriors were gathered.
Uneasily I shifted on Ebur’s saddle. My armor was light, as armor went, as I’d told Lord Leofric, but the weight still lay heavy on my shoulders.
My grip went to my braid as it often did when I was nervous. But my hair wasn’t in its usual thick rope. Instead, my fingers touched the metal of my helmet.
Earlier, Aine had tied my hair back. “It must be firmly fastened.” With skilful fingers, she’d twisted it into a braided coil and secured it with a string of wool. “There. That will fit below your helmet, and it won’t come loose, whatever happens.”
Whatever happens. Aine’s words rang in my ears as I stared across the vast field at a terrifying spectacle.
The Danes. So many more than Saxons. Panic overwhelmed me at the sight of the solid wall of men, most on foot, a few of them on horseback. How could we defeat them once their shields were up, their axes high, their catapults, heaving with stones, at the ready? I could hear their jeering and hooting, calling out curses and threats. They’d found out we were coming to meet them on this open stretch of grassy land. I didn’t know how.
Had I led us into a trap? I darted a peek over my shoulder. We had men for our own shield wall, tall, strong men, many of them young and bold. Once their shields were raised, the edges touched. Surely they would form a defense too hard for the Danes to break.
Behind the shield warriors were the townspeople, men I had known my whole life. Wilbert, shifting his axe from hand to hand, his expression firm. The blacksmith, the inn-keeper, no doubt wishing himself on the mead-bench instead; the butcher, the miller and his two sons, a farmer, carrying only a hoe... all of them had come. Closer to me were the warriors who were now my bodyguard, Edmund leading them. They were mounted too, but later, when the horns blew and the battle began, we would join the men on foot.
When the battle began.
Courage, I told myself. Courage.
I hadn’t known it would feel like this. I hadn’t known fear would sour in my mouth, that my stomach would churn, my palms dampen inside my leather gloves, or my legs turn so weak I could barely hold on to Ebur’s sides with my clenched, leather-clad thighs. It was fortunate I hadn’t been able to break my fast that morning, though Aine had tried to make me eat. There was no way I could keep anything in my roiling belly.
No! I refused to give in! Fear was the point at which weakness could enter, like a pottery bowl made poorly, or a thread loose in the loom, leaving a bowl to break, a garment to unravel. Fear would not enter into my soul, just as no Dane would trample the soil of my lands. No Danish blade would take the lives of the women and children of Coventry, huddled in their homes now, praying that the men of the Middle Lands, and the men of Mercia too, would hold off Thurkill the Tall.
Buy NAKED here
Anglo-Saxon England was a tough time and place for a woman. Constant Danish invasion by those later called Vikings, though the Saxons called them Danes, occurred many times in the 10th and 11th century. By Godiva’s lifetime, the Dane Law was the rule in much of East Anglia and the English eastern coast.
Records suggest that Godiva was more than equal to the challenges of her day. Her name appears in records as the only female landowner who retained her lands not only against the Danes but also later against the Norman invasion of 1066. Saxon noblewomen could inherit and govern property and some were certainly warriors. The question I asked myself when writing NAKED – was Godiva?
In my research I explored how likely it was that a noblewoman such as Godiva would fight to defend her lands. Historians tend to agree that it would be unusual, but not impossible. Archaeological evidence has dug up some female graves containing weapons, but it’s uncertain whether this was a ceremonial custom or if such remains reveal Anglo-Saxon women played a direct role in warfare. In turbulent times many women may well have taken up arms in self-defence and to guard their homes and families.
Historical evidence also reveals Anglo –Saxon female leaders who certainly fought for their lands and people. As Godiva puts it in NAKED:
“Don’t you know the tales of the brave and the true? There’s a legend of a great lady of Mercia who was a warrior too. Didn’t Aethelflaed build great fortresses, and do battle herself against the Danes?”
We might have forgotten Aethelflaed, the eldest daughter of Alfred the Great, who played a crucial role in securing the formation of a United Kingdom. In The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Aethelflaed is referred to as the Lady of the Mercians and in her time she was a respected military leader. Another more famous Englishwoman who fought fiercely against invasion (in her case against the Romans) was of course, Boadicea, who took Londinium by storm.
I like to think the spirit of such women lived in Godiva of Coventry. Lady Godiva is, of course, more than a historical figure. She’s also a legend. Her story is shrouded in history and mystery. Further back in time than the real-life eleventh century Countess Godgyfu, Godiva is connected to Christian saints and pagan goddesses. Godiva’s story has lasted for thousands of years, been transformed and re-told time and time again, because she’s an archetype – a reflection of the images in our souls that inspire us. Godiva has a lot in common as a ‘soul sister’ with the fictional Lady Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (who was Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University). Eowyn is a shieldmaiden who defeats the Witch-king no man can kill because she is ‘no man’ – a theme Shakespeare took up earlier in Macbeth (can’t wait to see the new movie!).
Was Godiva a warrior? A woman who was prepared to ride naked to ensure her people didn’t starve was surely a woman who would do whatever needed to be done to protect those she loved. Heroines like Godiva, Aethelflaed, Boadicea and Eowyn are powerful reminders of the transformative feminine potential in story – and in us.
Follow Eliza Redgold on
or subscribe to her newsletter at www.elizaredgold.com
ELIZA REDGOLD is an author, academic and unashamed romantic. She writes historical fiction (St Martin’s Press) and romance (Harlequin).
NAKED: A Novel of Lady Godiva was released internationally by St Martin’s Press New York in 2015. Her ‘Romance your Senses’ series of contemporary romances are published by Harlequin. They include Black Diamonds, Hide and Seek and Wild Flower. Eliza is also contracted to Harlequin Historical for two upcoming Victorian historical romances. Look out for Enticing Benedict Cole in November 2015.
Eliza Redgold is based upon the old, Gaelic meaning of her name, Dr Elizabeth Reid Boyd. English folklore has it that if you help a fairy, you will be rewarded with red gold. She has presented academic papers on women and romance and is a contributor to the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Romance Fiction. She was born in Irvine, Scotland on Marymass Day and currently lives in Australia.
We know her name. We know of her naked ride. We don't know her true story.
We all know the legend of Lady Godiva, who famously rode naked through the streets of Coventry, covered only by her long, flowing hair. So the story goes, she begged her husband Lord Leofric of Mercia to lift a high tax on her people, who would starve if forced to pay. Lord Leofric demanded a forfeit: that Godiva ride naked on horseback through the town. There are various endings to Godiva's ride, that all the people of Coventry closed their doors and refused to look upon their liege lady (except for 'peeping Tom') and that her husband, in remorse, lifted the tax. Naked is an original version of Godiva's tale with a twist that may be closer to the truth: by the end of his life Leofric had fallen deeply in love with Lady Godiva. A tale of legendary courage and extraordinary passion, Naked brings an epic story new voice.